On Sensationalism

I’ve had the privilege of working with junior and senior high kids at the annual Lighthouse Young Writers Summer Camp. The cool thing about teaching at summer camp is you get to teach, encourage kids with their writing, and never have to grade a thing. It’s really the way teaching should be. But I’ll save that rant for another time.

Between the creative writing class I teach at school and the classes I’ve taught at Lighthouse, I’ve noticed that young writers are sensationalists. Parents get killed. Alcoholism tortures every family. Shooting sprees are common endings and solutions to a character’s problems. On occasion, I find myself wishing for a therapist’s number on speed dial by the time I finish reading these stories.

Why is it that so many writers resort to blood bath?

Because young (and/or inexperienced) writers are afraid. I know because I’m guilty. When I go back and look my undergrad writing projects, I wrote to shock. I wrote to offend. I wrote violence because I didn’t know any other way to make my writing interesting. I was afraid of being boring.

(Gasp!)

Now I know that simple is best. Great tension and conflict can come out of a simple, common, mundane desire of a character. But young writers don’t have the confidence (or developed storytelling skills) to trust their idea. So they cop out and sensationalize.

As a teacher, how do you teach students to be sensational rather than sensationalists?

Truth be told, that is truly the million dollar question. I equate the blood bath story ending to the dream ending. The worst possible story conclusion is the “I woke up and it was all a dream.” What a joke. I think Mark Twain would say that writers who conclude their stories this way are rescuing their characters through miracle. However morbid, killing your character (or sending your character to murder or even suicide) is rescuing through a miracle of sorts. The character doesn’t have to live with consequences, and the writer doesn’t have to flex his/her writing muscle to figure out how to really resolve the conflict.

I have my students write two possible outcomes to their story: their central character either gets what he wants or he doesn’t. Write it both ways… and none of this “he wants to die!” crap either. Secondly, I have students figure out surprises along the way. The character may get what she wants, but it might not be all it’s cracked up to be.

One of the greatest reasons for reading that I’ve ever come across is that we read to experience life in ways we will never achieve in our actual lives. So if we are writing stories that have easy outs, then we don’t offer any challenges or hope to our readers.

I’m not advocating happy endings by any means, but what if the characters we write about have to actually deal with consequences? What if we as writers have to just sit there with our pencil in our ears and think about ways to write an engaging resolution?

Our students will complain about writing being too hard. And then we all get to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

4 thoughts on “On Sensationalism

  1. You thoughts on why young writers so easily go to sensationalism strikes me as parallel to why parents so easily adopt corporal punishment.

    You state “But young writers don’t have the confidence (or developed storytelling skills) to trust their idea. So they cop out and sensationalize.” I found this idea to be true as a parent as well. It takes hard work to discipline effectively. Simply hitting everyone and everything for any consequence so as to not “Spare the Rod” was a cop out for me as a dad. I have found that when I sit patiently with my belt fastened and really pray about how best to handle a discipline situation that I do find other more effective ways to discipline. And for the record, I am not necessarily shunning the “sparing the rod” approach but most of the time such an approach alleviates me from the tough task of having to discipline in a way that is beyond the simple cop out.

    Maybe, as you teach kids to work at becoming better writers they will inadvertently learn the lesson of being a better parent.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts, J Rock. It may just come down to thoughtfulness in general, responding rather than reacting–for both adults and children. I wonder if television shows help create hurdles towards hard work and determination. The shows my kids watch have the characters solving their problems in 20 minutes, and the third try is usually the charm. I’m not saying TV is ruining humanity, but hardships aren’t shown to endure. We see that play out in projects and activities.

  3. I think TV and computer plays a part but also the culture as a whole. My kids are not allowed to run from first-light to street-lights as I did because I don’t trust people in my community not to harm them. (Heh, heh It may just be that I am my kid’s problem – I am sure that my 9 year old would agree.) Since they are not allowed to run they are only allowed TV and Video games for a majority of the time. How to get kids to think over big problems or find creative solutions is as you say “million dollar question”.

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